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Lost highways 

Motorists have reason to celebrate --- at least in the short term. As part of County Executive Jack Doyle's proposed 2003 budget cuts, the county will no longer pay towns to resurface, sweep, and otherwise maintain county roads. If approved by the Legislature this fall, the move would save the county almost $1.5 million next year.

            That means travelers of county roads, which are typically the main thoroughfares in the area, won't have to contend with annoying detours, the stench of hot tar, and the sight of sweaty, sunburned workers scantily clad in orange safety vests next summer.

            Town supervisors, however, are less than excited about that prospect. And if the 2003 budget cut becomes codified into a long-term county cost-saving measure, drivers could find themselves yearning for a whiff of molten asphalt.

            Town crews work on town roads, but have traditionally been reimbursed by the county for work they do on county roads that pass through the towns. In Perinton, the cut potentially represents a roughly $45,000 shift in expenses from the county to the town, according to town supervisor James Smith. In the past, the county painted town roads and provided signs at no cost to the towns. But now, "the county will begin charging us for doing road striping and making signs," Smith says, "and we will no longer be getting a reimbursement for roadside mowing on county roads." Town crews perform other cosmetic tasks on county roads, such as sweeping gravel and other debris from the road surface and picking up road kill. Under Doyle's proposal, towns would no longer be reimbursed for that work, either.

            But it's the discontinuation of reimbursement for resurfacing work that could be most problematic for the towns, particularly if the cut proposed for 2003 becomes policy in future tight-budget years. "If [the county] doesn't have additional revenue sources, I don't know how they'll get revenue to reinstate that," Smith says.

            "If you keep eroding that program, at some point the condition of the roads really starts to show and be unsafe," says Penfield town supervisor Channing Philbrick. County roads in Penfield include "the major north-south, east-west roads," Philbrick says, such as Five Mile Line Road and Salt Road, among others.

            Over time, "normal maintenance becomes major maintenance," says Philbrick. And "the longer you wait, the more it's going to cost you to maintain the roads." So if the county doesn't resume reimbursing towns for such work in 2004 or 2005, major maintenance will become a major expense --- an expense for which towns could be responsible.

It may be possible for towns to avoid major maintenance costs two or three years from now by doing preventative maintenance on county roads next year --- on their own dime. But as Smith says, "We have our own obligation on our own roads we have to maintain." Smith doubts whether any town could afford the added expense of footing the bill for county road maintenance. And that's assuming towns could legally alter county roads, which are the county's responsibility.

            "I don't think we even have the legal ability to do that," Smith says. "Those roads are owned by the county. We don't have the right to do that, except under contract."

            Philbrick, however, doesn't think the county would stand in the way. "As a practical matter, any time the state or a town wants to do some of [the county's] work as an expense, I don't think that would be an issue."

            Calls seeking the Doyle administration's opinion were not returned.

            County roads in Irondequoit are in decent shape, says town supervisor David Schantz, because most of the county roads in that town have recently been resurfaced and reconstructed. But in regard to keeping those new roads swept and the right of ways alongside them mowed and orderly, "we're obviously very concerned," he says.

            Irondequoit is in midst of a major revitalization effort aimed at attracting people and businesses to the area. "In that regard, we obviously have to continue those [cleaning] efforts or lose ground trying to market our town," Schantz says.

            Schantz estimates that work will cost about $30,000 a year. "In a $23 million budget, it's not significant," he says. "But in this economic environment, we count every penny."

            Penfield stands to lose 10 times that much money next year, and a few road crew jobs, to boot. "We plan on doing $280,000 to $300,000 of county road work," Philbrick says. "If the cutback becomes $100,000, it would have a major impact on revenue." To make up the difference, and to safeguard town jobs, Philbrick says the town crew would seek work for other government organizations, school districts, and colleges.

            Doyle's proposal "puts the squeeze on us," says Philbrick, who, like Doyle, is a Republican. "I understand the county's position and applaud him for keeping the tax rate flat, but it does put quite an impact on us at the local level."

            And the county is passing the buck in another way, too. "The public doesn't know if it's a county road or a town road," Philbrick says. So if the county cut causes a smooth, scenic road to turn into an ugly, bumpy nightmare: "The town get the complaints."

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